SCOTT: Is the SEC West overrated?

On paper, the SEC West's lack of road success could be seen as an embarrassing shortcoming or a sign of weakness compared to the SEC East.

Instead, it's yet another sure sign of the SEC's increasing parity and balance.


The SEC West entered this past weekend with an 10-16 record in SEC road games. The skid extended to 10-17 on Saturday before Arkansas finally broke through with a 63-57 win at Alabama. On Sunday, LSU dropped its third straight game losing at Georgia 57-54 on a last second three-pointer.


Still, that's hardly a disturbing trend or a sign of impending doom for the SEC.


"This is my 16th year in the league, and I've never seen anything like this in 16 years," said Florida coach Billy Donovan, who first came to the SEC as a Kentucky assistant in 1989. "It is absolutely incredible, just the job that the coaches, the staffs and the kids have done in this league."


The SEC has long held the reputation of a football conference as good if not better than any in the nation. Basketball, for the most part, was seen as Kentucky and whoever might rise up from time to time.


The perception and reality have changed dramatically in recent seasons, particularly last year when the SEC sent six teams to the NCAA Tournament and Florida and LSU reached the Final Four before the Gators won it all.


This season, the SEC is more dangerous than ever. Four weeks into the season, Auburn, a team picked by most preseason polls to finish fifth or sixth in the SEC West, owns home victories over Vanderbilt, Tennessee and Alabama. In one night last Wednesday, Georgia beat Kentucky in overtime, South Carolina beat Arkansas, Vanderbilt beat LSU, and Ole Miss beat Tennessee.


While all of those games might appear to be technical "upsets," SEC coaches and players know different.


"I'm not just playing some party line, but I don't think it's close," Georgia coach Dennis Felton said. "I think the SEC is the most powerful basketball conference in the country. I'm basing it on the level of basketball being played in our league compared to the others. It's a brutally strong conference right now. There are so many great players and coaches. The ability level of the players is just really strong. It's especially tough for all of our teams. There's no doubt that Florida is the best in the country, but there are teams nipping at their heels.


"We're a team picked to be last in our division, and we're not bad. Auburn is picked last on their side, or Ole Miss, and both are really tough. There are 300 other teams I'd rather play than Mississippi or Auburn. I'm not a great historian on the SEC, but I can't imagine there being a stronger period of play than there is now."


The only problem with all that parity and balance is that it might lead to several 9-7, 8-8 and 7-9 teams in the final SEC standings. While the SEC Tournament committee will look at RPI, strength of schedule and several other factors in addition to conference records, it makes for a lot of drama and intensity within the SEC season.


The only way for a team to separate itself from the pack is to win on the road, something that's become increasingly difficult to do.


"If someone doesn't have the ability to go on the road and win, there's going to be a bunch of 8-8 teams," Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury said. "Nobody's been able to do that yet, and that's the key to winning championships. Everyone's good at home. There are no easy outs this year. Auburn's much improved, and Ole Miss is a very good, experienced team. We're just going to have to see which team can go get a couple of wins on the road."


Hold on to your seats and buckle up. This is not a ride for people with heart ailments or pregnant women.




If Georgia coach Dennis Felton had his way, the mechanism for responding to questionable officiating would change and allow the coaches to speak their minds in a public forum.


After a last-second 78-76 loss at Alabama ended with some controversial officiating down the stretch, Felton wanted to comment on the officiating. Instead, he commented on the SEC rules that prevent him from comment on the officiating.


"Unlike any other situation in this country, your First Amendment rights are taken from you when it comes to (commenting on officiating)," Felton said. "We can talk about every single part of the game except that part. Obviously we can't have a do-over, so the game goes down as a loss and there is no recourse.


"Officials will keep officiating for as long as they want to keep officiating. There just isn't any recourse."


The only recourse is to send films and an official complaint to Gerald Boudreaux, the SEC's supervisor of officials, but even that won't change the outcome of a game that counts as a loss for the Bulldogs. If it helps, perhaps Felton can take some satisfaction if and when the SEC takes action against referee Tom Lopes for his performance in the Alabama-Georgia game. Even then, if Lopes is reprimanded or suspended, the SEC will not comment or confirm the action.


"There will be the normal review process and it will conclude when I look at the clips Dennis sent," Boudreaux told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "We have options within our review process. But if there is any follow-up, we're not going to release anything about it. There will be no official statement coming out of this office."


Boudreaux told the AJC "there were some plays missed" by the officiating crew but also said that sort of thing is going to happen "because of the talent and athleticism of the players."


"As long as a human element is involved there will be mistakes, but we want to keep them to a minimum," Boudreaux said. "But as far as accountability and recourse, it's all in place."




For all the positive things that have occurred with the Kentucky football program in the past year, particularly on the field with the Wildcats finishing 8-5 and beating Clemson in the Music City Bowl, no team in the SEC has been hit harder by tragedy than Kentucky.


On Dec. 31, 2005, Kentucky commitment Chris Mosby died in a car wreck. Then on Jan. 20 of this year, the Wildcats lost another commitment to a car crash. Receiver John Keye of Jackson, Ga., was a passenger in a car that was involved in a one-vehicle wreck.


"This is a tragedy for everyone involved – family, friends, coaches and classmates," Kentucky coach Rich Brooks said. "John was an outstanding young man, and as one of our earliest commitments this year, was excited about attending Kentucky. This is something you don't really get over."


The Kentucky football program gave Keye's family a Wildcat football jersey bearing his name and high school number.


"John was an absolute pleasure to know and recruit," said assistant coach Steve Brown, who recruited Keye. "He was very polite and respectful and always had a smile on his face. Everyone I talked to at his school had nothing but good things to say about him. My heart goes out to his family, school and community. He will be deeply missed."




In more positive news for the Wildcats, it appears more and more likely that sophomore quarterback Curtis Pulley will redshirt the 2007 season in hopes of competing for the chance to replace Andre Woodson as the Wildcats' starting quarterback in 2008.


In fact, Pulley isn't enrolled in school for the spring semester. Instead, Pulley plans to re-enroll in August and then sit out the 2007 football season.


Pulley is a talented athlete who has also played some receiver for the Wildcats and developed a penchant for blocking kicks, but he lost out to Woodson in the competition for the starting job last spring and Woodson went on to become one of the nation's best quarterbacks in 2006.


With Woodson returning for his senior season in the fall, Pulley could have moved to receiver, continued to move back and forth between quarterback and receiver, or put his career on hold for one season. With Pulley out of the picture for now, the Wildcats will turn to redshirt freshmen Will Fidler and Mike Hartline as Woodson's backups.




There's more help on the way for Bruce Pearl's young Tennessee team, but it won't count until the fall term ends in the 2007-08 basketball season.


Former Arizona guard J.P. Prince has enrolled at Tennessee and started working out with the Vols. Prince played at White Station High in Memphis where he was a teammate of Tennessee senior forward Dane Bradshaw.


Prince originally considered transferring to Vanderbilt, but Prince said he became frustrated with the admissions office's concerns about accepting a mid-term transfer.


Prince was rated the nation's No. 21 prospect out of high school in 2005 but never found his place at Arizona. Now he's looking forward to starting over closer to home.


"It's time to get back to work," Prince said. "Tennessee had everything I was looking for. I like the coaches and the players, and I especially like the freedom that Coach Pearl's system allows his players."




South Carolina is quietly loading up on some impressive transfers of its own. One year after originally signing with Syracuse, former South Carolina prep star Mike Jones has decided to return home and play for the Gamecocks.


Jones, South Carolina's 2006 Mr. Basketball and one of the nation's top 50 senior prospects coming out of high school, recently enrolled at South Carolina and will be eligible following the fall semester.


Jones' decision makes him the third in-state player to return home and join the Gamecocks in the past year. Guard Devan Downey spent a year at Cincinnati, and guard Zam Fredrick spent two seasons at Georgia Tech. Both will be eligible at the beginning of the 2007-08 season.




Yes, it's baseball season, and teams are getting ready throughout the nation's top conference. One team, Tennessee, will have to do without one of its best players for 8-10 weeks.


Preseason All-American center fielder Julio Borbon, Tennessee's leading hitter last season, suffered a fractured left ankle during a recent practice. Now the Vols, ranked 11th in Baseball America's preseason poll, will have to do without a player who led the team in batting average, runs, hits and stolen bases last year.


That's not going to help the Vols, but at least the timing gives coach Rod Delmonico some time to make some adjustments before Tennessee opens its season on Friday at Florida State.


"No one's going to replace Julio," Delmonico said. "We don't have anybody on the bench that's going to replace him. We've got to fill his shoes and just hold it together until he gets back."


Ready or not, the conference schedule kicks in the weekend of March 16-18. Eight SEC teams are ranked in Collegiate Baseball's Top 40, led by Arkansas at No. 4 and Vanderbilt at No. 8.




Richard Scott is a Birmingham-based sports writer, author and featured columnist in Tiger Rag. Reach him at


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